So there he is. Dr Phene in his garden. A neatly dressed elderly man with a flamboyant beard. Dr Phene was a minor celebrity in his own time. He is still famous in a small way. A local eccentric who collected artworks from all over the world. A poor man’s Sir John Soane if you want to be cruel.
He built a famous house which he never lived in. Shall we look at the house?
The house is as famous as the man. Stories abound about Dr Phene and his house. His wife or his fiancé died and the wedding breakfast, already laid out was preserved untouched in the house just like Miss Havisham’s. I’m glad to say this is not true. A woman to whom he was engaged died of a rheumatic fever but that was many years before he built the house. He later married his cousin Margaretta. Some say the marriage soon failed others that it lasted for some time before Margaretta left and went to live in Paris. He did name a street after her though – Margaretta Terrace.
Another story told about Dr Phene is that Queen Victoria came to see the new houses he was building off Oakley Street and was pleased enough with them to say he could name the new street after her, but he declined as he had already promised the name to his wife. If this is true it sounds quite a daring thing to do. He may have made up for the slight later by writing a long narrative poem: “Victoria Queen of Albion – an idyll of the world’s advance in her life and reign” published in 1897. (I have a copy of the book here with me but I’m going to spare you any quotations from this work. It doesn’t make much sense to me even with the explanatory footnotes and illustrations.)
It’s also true that Dr Phene never actually lived in the house but he and his friends seem to have spent time in it, long enough to have created among other features a mortuary for cats within its walls. Or would that be another apocryphal story? The house is described as being in the style of a French chateau or an Italian palazzo depending on the source and either way as a celebration of Dr Phene’s rich and varied ancestry. He is said to have avoided completing the building because of a dispute over the rates with the Chelsea Vestry, which is a dull enough explanation to be plausible, but perhaps he simply never got around to finishing it. He had another house nearby in Oakley Street which wasn’t exactly conventional in appearance either.
I love the composition of this photograph. Dr Phene, Dr Phene’s dog, Dr Phene’s maid posing for another illustration of his eccentricity.
For the record then, Dr John Samuel Phene: a traveller, a collector, a scholar, a poet, a recluse (who nevertheless seems to have had many friends), a property developer. An innovator in architecture and planning, he was the first person to think of planting trees in streets but also perhaps a lover of decay. The famous house was on the corner of Oakley Street and Upper Cheyne Row. It was built in the grounds of the literally crumbling eighteenth century mansion Cheyne House. The garden was overgrown and unkempt except where Dr Phene had carved out a section for the display of his collection of sculptures.
I think these two photos, probably taken after Dr Phene’s death, demonstrate the sheer strangeness of the house and garden better than any number of stories. And the depth of Phene’s obsession with collecting exotic objects. That is still real long after the rumours have been forgotten.
The garden and its contents are looking a little the worse for wear. Perhaps this was at the time of the sale of the house. The building itself continued to stand empty until its demolition in the 1920s.
I haven’t exhausted the mine of contradictory stories about Dr Phene. The photographs tell their own story. I always come back to the first picture: Dr Phene in his garden. Aloof, diffident but quietly satisfied with his efforts and the persona he has created.
But I can’t help adding one more picture, one more mystery. Here is Dr Phene in a more sociable setting on a charabanc tour in 1860.
I think he’s the man on the far left with the casual pose and the already impressive moustache. But he could be deceiving me.
December 30th, 2011 at 9:11 am
Thanks for the article and pictures…he is my uncle several times removed…I have traveled there in the 80’s and actually met an elderly lady well into her 80’s who remembered him as a young girl…my daughter found this article and told me now she understands my travel and obsession with collecting articles from around the world is genetic…lo
August 26th, 2012 at 9:21 pm
Our affinity for the arts could very well be genetic, we derive from a line of Huguenots tradesman that worked silver for the monarchy.
January 15th, 2012 at 3:41 pm
Dear Mr Walker
I would just like to echo Jim Phene’s comments. Thank you for the detailed article and photographs. I am a very distant cousin of Dr Phene (and Jim Phene’s I assume) and am very interested in his life and times. As you know he had a wide spectrum of interests – including his family’s own history. Would you know where his papers may have gone; there are conflicting accounts.
August 28th, 2012 at 2:04 am
I would like to get in touch with you both…there are not many Phene’s left in the world…JIm
August 28th, 2012 at 9:40 am
Dear Jim, it would be great to speak together and catch up on family history. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Best wishes, David
August 30th, 2012 at 1:05 pm
David, Jim and Christopher
I’m glad to see the blog is bringing the Phenes together.
August 30th, 2012 at 1:39 pm
Thank you for the interesting and informative article..Jim
September 1st, 2012 at 1:56 pm
I’m on Facebook I’m in Canada feel free to add for easier contact. I know my family is from Le Havre, and that there is still family there. My family has some notes with a Samuel Phene mentioned, I’m currently waiting for copies of these documents.
October 20th, 2020 at 1:08 pm
Hi, This amazing eccentric fellow was a distant relative of mine. I’ve researched the Phene family back to one man, Toussaint Phene, from a small village called Cambligneul, who left France after persecution, sometime before 1600. So one of the early ones. The family were mostly weavers and upholsterers, not silversmiths. They lived in Canterbury for a long while, before moving to london. It seems that Dr Phenes grandparenets moved to Chelsea, where my ancestors stayed in Threadneedle St, working as weavers, upholsterers and auctioneers. I’d love to know where Dr Phene got his money from, as I know my ancestors were pretty poor by comparison. If you’d like to know a bit more, I’ve done heaps of research into the Phenes, dating as far back as 1530s. Happy to share what I have!
September 1st, 2012 at 1:59 pm
Also check BBC’s metalworks the show on silversmithing is all about Hugenouts. I believe the second episode.
September 27th, 2013 at 4:59 pm
I am a arriving a little late on this Dr Samuel Phené’s story. This man was responsible by the way of the Huguenot society which was still at that time a very serious organisation. This is not the point I want you about. As you guess, I am French and part of my family is living in Bouée near Nantes, the very last place where protestant cult was celebrated in Brittany.Bouée was a part of Savenay parish. We think that the name Phené comes from North France close to Belgium, so we are surprised when he declared that his house Savenay’s castle is named after the house his family was dwelling in on the bank of the River Loire. Could you give us the name of this family?
September 29th, 2013 at 2:56 am
Interesting enough I have met an individual and work with him whose name is Hautphenne…seems to be awful close and an interesting French meaning with prefix..
Also in my family there is a similar story that we came with the Norman’s and we had a castle that seems to have played a small part in history…beyond that I would have to ask my father or aunt…
January 16th, 2014 at 4:25 pm
Thank you a lot Jim for your gentle answer, you are quite right : I am looking; above anything about the name of Phené’s castle – not the pub Phené’s arms and not the “château de Save-nay”of Chelsea – on the banks of the River Loire.
By the way, your ancestor wasn’t ridiculous as an archeologist and items of his collections are still kept in large and serious museums. It was the launching of researches on the lost past and S. Phené was part of it. He did as well a good job in keeping the huguenots’s memories alive through the Huguenot society revival in the 1880 era. Sometimes he would confuse his dreams and crual life and so he happened to create a half reality…Aren’t we all build up that way?
February 20th, 2016 at 4:49 pm
Hi. I was fascinated to find this article, as I have been researching Dr. Phene for my own use. His two female servants, Sarah and Emma Farey were born In Over, Cambridgeshire, which is where I live. Dr. Phene may have visited Over, as in a book about the village written in the late 1800s, it states that Dr. Phene took back to his museum two ancient mill stones, quorns, found in Over. My plan when I began the research was to try and track down his museum, and our mill stones! Guessing that the maid posing in the photo is either Sarah or Emma! They both eventually died in London, but were buried here in Over. What a fascinating man he was!
April 15th, 2017 at 10:13 pm
My great grand aunt was the original owner of 30 Oakley St two doors down from Dr. Phene from the mid-1860s until her death in 1872. I have spent a great deal of time trying to learn more about Adele (nee Vincens) and although I have made progress, there is always more work to be done. I read about Dr. Phene with great interest after coming across his name in documentation about the purchase of the Oakley St home. I’ve wondered if Dr. Phene left papers, letters, etc., behind – perhaps they are available at a library or university? He seems to be quite an interesting man! Great article!!
April 24th, 2017 at 4:11 pm
I’m not aware of a collection of Phene papers at an academic institution. We have a ledger which I think was his with some lists and drafts of business letters.
May 7th, 2017 at 4:35 pm
Thank you for getting back to me. I’ll be in London later this year and will keep pursuing – if you ever run into the name Vincens or Little (her husband, of sorts), please let me know. Best regards!
July 4th, 2019 at 11:16 am
Anyone phenes still active? I had a couple of questions I wanted to ask for a class assignment.